The chances to remake American law—and maybe American society—are stacking up for the Supreme Court. Next month, the Justices will render their verdicts on the Affordable Care Act and on the Arizona immigration law. The fate of affirmative action in university admissions will likely be determined by the Roberts Court in its next term, and now another blockbuster appears headed for the Justices as well. The future of the Voting Rights Act—probably the Great Society’s greatest landmark—will almost certainly be in the Court’s hands next year. The heart of the Voting Rights Act is its famous Section 5, which essentially put the South on perpetual probation. In rough terms, the law requires the states of the old Confederacy (as well as a few smaller areas outside the South) to submit any changes in their electoral law to the Justice Department for what’s known as “pre-clearance”—to make sure that the changes don’t infringe on minority voting rights. Before Section 5, states and municipalities could simply change their rules—about everything from the location of polling places to the borders of district lines—and dare civil-rights activists to sue to stop them. It was a maddening, and very high-stakes, game of whack-a-mole. As a result of Section 5, though, the Justice Department monitored these moves and made sure there would be no backsliding on voting rights.
In 1965, Congress authorized Section 5 for five years. In subsequent years, Congress has extended the provision several times, and in 2006, it was reauthorized for another twenty-five years. In 2009, the Supreme Court ducked a challenge to the law on procedural grounds, but now the issue cannot be evaded any longer. Last week, a three-judge panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit voted two-to-one to uphold the Voting Rights Act and reject a challenge to Section 5 by Shelby County, in Alabama. Next stop for the case: the Supreme Court.
The questions at the heart of the case are both simple and profound. How much has American society, and especially the South, changed with regard to race relations since 1965? Is Section 5 still a necessary check on the white majority—or is the law a patronizing relic of a vanished age? Judge David Tatel, writing for the majority, said Congress still had the right to insist that the Justice Department continue to monitor voting rights in the South.
Full Article: Do We Still Need the Voting Rights Act? : The New Yorker.